MOVIES: Gotham City’s war on terror

To say that “The Dark Knight” is the finest comic book movie of all time sounds tinny — relegating this movie to the ghetto of mediocrity inhabited by films like “Wanted” or “Hellboy II” is insulting.

“The Dark Knight” transcends its genre: It is an amazing movie, an epic tragedy in the Grecian sense. “The Dark Knight” succeeds in ways only hinted at in “Batman Begins,” Christopher Nolan’s first crack at the franchise. Mr. Nolan got certain things very right in that picture — Batman’s instilling of terror into Gotham City’s criminal element, the evolution of billionaire Bruce Wayne into a masked vigilante — but it still felt like a comic book movie. The audience was winked at too often.

The throwaway one-liners that littered “Batman Begins” are nonexistent in its sequel. “The Dark Knight” is an altogether darker and thematically ambitious film.

Whereas “Batman Begins” was an examination of one man’s struggle against the criminal forces at work in his society, the sequel tackles society itself. When confronted with an unrelenting gale of sheer nihilistic rage, how much can people absorb before they crack under the strain?

Embodying that nihilism is the Joker (Heath Ledger). At first, he is dismissed by Batman (Christian Bale), Gotham City Police Department Lt. Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) and the mob as little more than a heist artist with a penchant for theatrics and a knack for knocking off Mafia-owned banks. When the mob enlists the Joker’s aid in rubbing out Batman, however, the full extent of his depravity is revealed.

It’s not money that motivates the Joker; it’s mayhem — he wants to prove that the rest of humanity is just as debased as he is. As Bruce Wayne’s butler, Alfred (Michael Caine), puts it: “Some men just want to watch the world burn.”

How does he set the world ablaze? The Joker threatens to kill people every day that Batman refuses to expose his true identity — a threat he follows through on with sadistic pleasure.

The city soon turns on its hero, demanding his head lest more of the public be put at risk. But even after Batman’s identity is thought to be revealed, the Joker doesn’t stop — he escalates his vicious campaign; he makes more radical demands. There is no appeasing this terrorist, no end to his empty rage.

Mr. Nolan’s and Mr. Ledger’s take on the Joker is exquisite. He is less a man than a force of nature, a pure distillation of sociopathic id unleashed on humanity at large. The Joker doesn’t even have an origin; co-writers (and brothers) Christopher and Jonathan Nolan mock the very idea of such a contrivance.

Their clown prince of crime tells several different versions of how he got his scars, and their point is simple: It doesn’t matter how the Joker came to be. He simply exists. And if city elders cannot find a way to contain his madness and protect their people, his insanity could spill over to even the best and brightest of their wards.

The Nolans force an interesting dilemma on the audience: How should society combat such malevolence? With the shining white knight, a district attorney who plays by the rules and brings criminals to justice in a court of law?

Or with the tarnished dark knight, a masked vigilante who operates outside the jurisdiction of the police — a man who doesn’t blanch at the thought of dropping a murderer off a 20-foot balcony to soften him up for interrogation? Is it possible for the two to work in tandem without the dark corrupting the light?

Make no mistake: “The Dark Knight’s” tone is midnight black — that Warner Bros. secured a PG-13 rating for this film is surprising.

The violence is brutal — snapping bones have never sounded so real or so sickening. Although sometimes tough to sit through, the violence is thematically integral: The filmmakers need us to understand just how dangerous the world of Gotham City is.

“The Dark Knight” is a masterpiece of the first order, and the first great post-Sept. 11 film. I mean that not chronologically, but generically. It is the first film to realistically confront the impact of terror on society writ large — and grapple with how that society must respond in the face of nihilistic aggression against a foe dedicated to ending its way of life.

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